In a letter to the ‘Irish Times’ in August, the President of the European Movement in Northern Ireland (EMNI) Brian Garrett and long-standing member Dennis Kennedy argue that it is in the interests of Ireland and the UK, and of the rest of the EU, that the closest possible association between the UK and the EU be preserved.
When the result of the UK’s “Brexit” referendum was announced, the European Movement International issued a brief statement saying ‘an amputation has been inflicted upon our union today.’ It added that:
‘The message of nationalism, isolationism and fear of the other has prevailed. What we stand for, what we believe in, what we are all about has received a body-blow.”
Those words convey the gravity of the decision, both for the limb being amputated and for the body being maimed. They also remind us of the profound nature of the decision – it was not just about trade or the workings of the institutions of the European Union, or with its policies and regulations. It was, rather, a blunt rejection of the whole concept of European integration, a walking away by the UK from the unique project begun in 1940s to prevent war in Europe and speed its recovery by means of linked economies and merging sovereignty.
The referendum revealed the extent of the public disengagement from the European Union, and the widespread misconception of it as an external force imposing its rules on the United Kingdom. Lost in the debate was any awareness that the EU of today is in part the creation of the United Kingdom, not an external authority, but an integral part of the governance of the UK, willingly entered into by successive UK governments and Parliaments.
This antagonism towards the EU has long had some support within the political spectrum of the UK, particularly within the Conservative Party. Mr Cameron’s resort to referendum was an ill-advised attempt to short-circuit the political process and see off both UKIP and his on Eurosceptic colleagues in government, while securing agreement from his own EU partners that the UK remain within the EU but uncommitted to further integration.
In the event the limited concessions were ignored in a heated referendum debate where the strongest advocates of Brexit were Government Ministers mainly concerned with restoring British sovereignty. (The suspension of the rule of cabinet solidarity, and the referendum itself were significant departures from constitutional practice established within the British parliamentary system.)
It now seems that when she is ready Mrs May will trigger Article 50 with or without Parliamentary approval. She could do it by invoking Royal Privilege to override Parliament, or she could rely on MPs abandoning both their principles and their up to now pro-EU convictions and voting through the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act. Some may do so protesting that ‘the people’ had spoken, but perhaps more concerned with retaining their seats at the next election than with their own judgement or parliamentary sovereignty.
Relaunch the argument
There is now a great onus on those in the UK, Ireland and the rest of the EU who believe in European integration as embodied in the democratically negotiated and ratified EU treaties to relaunch the argument, to recall the imperatives that drew together the enemies of two World Wars to create an unprecedented union of states which would put an end to war among them, and which, through agreed structures, would enable them to rebuild Europe, physically, economically and socially.
The problems facing Europe today – of economic recovery in a highly competitive world, of an unprecedented influx of refugees, of new member states with fresh memories of violent conflict, of environmental pollution and global warning, of a hostile and unpredictable Russia as a neighbour – can surely be tackled best within the framework of a European union.
Retreat to nationalism and ideas of the sovereignty of nation states
The Brexit debate, and the result, had indications of a retreat to the root problem which almost destroyed Europe – exaggerated concepts of nationalism and of the sovereignty of nation states. Such ideologies provoked the slaughters in the Balkans, and still threaten social and political stability in several European countries, not least the United Kingdom which in our day has seen a thirty-year terrorist campaign on this island to dismember it, and a strong political drive to detach Scotland from it.
The purpose of the EU is not to devise solutions to these issues, and certainly not to impose any such, but, through the principles of close cooperation and where possible integration on economic, social and other levels, to construct a framework of a common or shared identity within which conflict can be defused.
It is within that framework that we have seen over recent decades unprecedented levels of cooperation between the two parts of Ireland, both at public and private sector levels, and greatly increased social contact. Generally, official relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have been transformed.
Brexit constitutes a threat to much of this. If it cannot be avoided, then it is in the interests of Ireland and the UK, and of the rest of the EU, that the closest possible association between the UK and the EU be preserved. The utmost public pressure should be exerted on politicians, in Dublin, Belfast and London, to remember this.
But it was the people of the UK, more than the politicians, who voted to leave the EU.
In part the vote was a rejection of the politicians and of the experts – economists, academics, administrators – whether in London or Brussels. It will be no easy task to reverse that tide.
All the more reason to start now. It would help if political leaders, in many EU states, could stop articulating their role vis a vis the EU as almost entirely defensive – they go to summits to defend British/Irish/ Polish interests, as if the EU is potentially a threat, rather than a unique system of governance of which they are integral parts.